The folks over at Abstraction Games sent me a review copy of their Wii U port of Whispering Willows, a 2-D horror-themed puzzle game. The original was created by Night Light Games for iOS and Android, which has also seen ports on the Xbox One, PS Vita, PC, and Mac. In this review, I will be talking about the game as a whole, but also specifically the benefits and short-comings of the Wii U version.
Presentation is where this game excels! The in-game graphics are absolutely stunning. The character sprites are hand drawn and have incredible detail. The lead character, Elena Elkhorn, has the ability to displace her spirit from her body and use it to solve puzzles and communicate with the dead. The imagery of Elena's body going limp when her beautiful spirit form floats from her body is both awesome and just a tad creepy.
However, where the in-game graphics succeed, the cutscene and loading screen graphics seem like cheap fan art. The cutscenes themselves are simple animatics, which begs the question as to why they aren't as high quality as the sprites. Thankfully they are few and far between, but when they do pop up, the difference is a bit jarring.
The game starts with Elena waking up from a terrifying dream of her father trapped in the nearby Willows Manor, a historical landmark in their small town. Using an amulet that has been passed down through her family of shamans, she can separate from her body and peek into the spirit realm. On her journey, she learns the ghastly truth behind the manor's owner, Wortham Willows, once revered as a hero of the area. The loss of his wife drove him to madness, leaving a wake of death behind him. It's up to you to uncover his secrets and save your dad.
You'll encounter the dead spirits of an interesting cast of characters, most of whom you will need to help come to terms with their own deaths. This is where the game starts to take a little bit of a repetitive turn. While learning the stories of the ghosts and how they met their demise is cool, whether it's through dialog or notes scattered around the manor, the game does start to turn into a long string of fetch quests. The process generally goes like this: meet a character, go find item that will give character closure, bring back so character can move on, final moments send you on to the next character, rinse and repeat. While I like the idea of our young protagonist "Sixth Sensing" all over the manor, it's just approached in a far too repetitive fashion. And with the long loading screens that pop up way too regularly, what should be a simple task can begin to feel like a chore. I'm sure this was just part of the port to the Wii U, as I know my PC can make quick work of long loading screens. This definitely put a damper on the experience though; I really wanted to see where the story went, but lost a great deal of the suspense watching a loading screen every three minutes.
The game itself is not overly challenging, and I managed to beat it in about 4 hours. There are a few puzzles that stumped me a bit, but nothing pushed me to the point that I just had to rage quit. Most of the mechanics involve using Elena's ghost form to sneak past monsters and unlock doors. The real challenge for most horror games comes from their ability to create fear and unease in the player. In that sense, I think the scares were made for a younger generation. While certain moments were slightly creepy or unnerving, I never felt like I was in truly immediate danger. If you're slightly more of a scaredy-cat than me, which is a tough claim to make, then maybe you'll get creeped out. For me, the scares just weren't there.
Whispering Willows is a very pretty game with an interesting story to uncover. The game's real shortcomings lie in its long load times, repetitive fetch quests, and lack of scares. While I appreciate bringing the game to a new audience on the Wii U, I'd say maybe pick up a copy on Steam or on your mobile device. (Especially since it's half the price on Android and iOS.)
I did a live video review over on our YouTube channel. Check out as I play a good portion of the game and hear me complain about loading screens...then feel bad, because I love the art. Then the CEO of Night Light Games shows up in the middle of one of my loading screen rants, which wasn't awkward at all. I'll be doing more live reviews on our channel in the future, so be sure to subscribe.